Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Sort of God Do We Worship?

November 16, 2014 – The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There is a certain, unspoken exchange of trust and worry and confidence and fear that happens when a boss hands his young protégé the keys to his car and says, “Here, you drive.” Has that ever happened to you? Did you ever climb behind the wheel of your boss’ car while he buckled into the passenger seat and pretended not to notice every single thing you did? Back when I worked for Robert Wisnewski in Montgomery, it happened a lot, and it always seemed to happen at the worst possible moments.

One Tuesday, we drove over to Augusta, Georgia, to watch a practice round at the Masters. We hit the road right after the 7am service, stayed all day, and then headed home in the darkness. He drove over in the daylight, but, now that it was night and we were both exhausted, he handed me the keys and said, “Your turn.” I think he fell asleep before we even made it to the interstate. As fatigue set in, I couldn’t decide whether I should turn on the radio and risk waking him up or leave it off and risk joining him in a potentially fatal slumber.

Another time in May, we drove up to Sewanee for the seminary’s graduation. It was a wonderful celebration hardly dampened by the steady rain that started to fall as the ceremony ended. As we retreated toward his car, Robert tossed me the keys, not even saying a word. I don’t know how often you drive down the mountain from Sewanee in the rain and fog, but doing so in your boss’ car is not fun. I strangled the life out of the steering wheel as I leaned forward in my seat, straining to see what was in front of the car. All of the sudden, a huge tractor-trailer tire appeared directly in front of us. “Hold on,” I cried, as I tapped the brakes, checked the mirrors, and swerved into the adjacent lane. Robert took a sharp breath and uttered a doubtful groan, but the tires held onto the pavement, and we continued our journey back home—me sweating bullets and him just smiling at the whole situation.

What is it like when someone really important gives you something of great value and says, “Here you go: it’s your turn?” What happens when someone entrusts you with something of great worth and, in so doing, not only hands over the asset itself but also puts the whole relationship that the asset represents into your hands? Well, it kind of depends on what kind of boss you have. Is your boss the kind of person who, if you crashed his car into oblivion, would fire you on the spot? Or is he the kind of boss who would wrap his arms around you and say, “Are you ok?”  

Jesus said, “[The kingdom of heaven] is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” To the first, he gave five talents; to the second, he gave two talents; and, to the last, he gave one talent—to each according to his ability. We know what happened next. Most of us, even before we heard the gospel lesson this morning, knew what happened next. The first slave doubled the money he was given, and, when his master returned to settle accounts, he produced the ten talents, and he was invited to enter into the joy of his master. The second did likewise, doubling the investment, and, after producing the four talents, he, too, was invited to enter into his master’s joy.

And then there was the third slave. He, of course, was afraid of what would happen if he lost what his master had given to him. He knew his master to be a harsh man, so he went and buried the talent in the ground. I like to imagine that fearful slave walking past that spot nonchalantly every single day, casually glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone was following him, checking to be sure that the dirt above the buried treasure had not been disturbed. And, finally, when the master returned, the third slave handed him the one, dirt-smeared talent, relieved that no one had dug it up when he wasn’t looking. He was delighted merely not to have lost his master’s money. But was his master satisfied? Not in the least.

Before we join Jesus in condemning the “wicked and lazy slave,” I think it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider just how much money had been entrusted to each of them. A talent was a measure of weight used for precious metals, and one talent equaled fifty-seven pounds of silver, which was enough money to pay a skilled laborer for nine years’ worth of work. If you paid a craftsman twenty dollars an hour for nine years, it would cost you around $375,000. So, when the master handed over these talents, he wasn’t just giving the slaves the keys to his car. He was giving them hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of treasure. If your boss handed you $400,000 and said, “I’ll be back in a few years; see what you can do with this,” how would it make you feel?

Again, I guess it all depends on what kind of boss you have—or at least on what kind of boss you think you have. Let me ask you this: who do you think is more likely to crash—the guy who is terrified that his boss will kill him if he crashes his car or the guy who knows that his boss will take care of him no matter what happens? And might it be possible that they have the same boss?

This parable about the kingdom isn’t a story about a tyrannical God who punishes those who fail to earn him a return on his investment. It’s a story about how you and I can be so overwhelmed by fear that we scare ourselves right out of God’s kingdom. God entrusts us with an incredible gift—more precious than we can even imagine. What will we do with that gift? What will we do with the life that we are given? Will we take that gift and risk what we have in order that it might multiply? Or will we bury ourselves in the ground because we are afraid of what might happen if we mess up?

It all depends on what kind of God we worship—on what sort of master we think is in charge of our lives. You know, looking around at the images of God and Christianity that pervade our culture, it would be easy to go through each day worried that God was out to get you. If you drive south on I-65, you can see a billboard with the image of a cardiac sinus rhythm going to a flat line and the words, “Someday you will meet God,” written on it. How is that supposed to make you feel? Like God loves you? If you listen to any of the preachers on the radio or watch any of them on television, what sort of God do they portray? It’s not the kind of God I want to meet when I die. Nor is it the kind of God whom Jesus came to earth to show the world all about. No wonder the world is running away from Christianity! Instead of showing the world God’s unconditional love, Christians have spent the last seventy years telling the world that it had better get its act together before the master returns.
But that isn’t the God I know, and it’s not the God of our faith. My God is the kind of God who says, “I will love you no matter what.” Our God is the kind of God who takes the very worst that humanity can give him—the cross upon which we killed his son—and turns it into new life by raising Jesus from the dead. That’s the kind of God who says, “No matter how badly you screw this up, I will always love you.” How can we be afraid of a God like that?
Jesus Christ came to set us free from everything that separates us from God—from our sin, from our mistakes, and especially our fear. That is the good news that we have to offer the world. That is the real gift that God has given us. But what will we do with that gift? Will we trust that God will love us no matter what? Or will we allow fear to take that treasure away from us? Fear is the only thing that threatens to isolate us from God’s kingdom. Fear is the only thing that can keep us from celebrating all that our gracious God wants to bestow upon us. Will we live in fear of failure because we doubt that God will still love us when we mess everything up? Or will we believe that God’s love is bigger than any mistake we could ever make? Amen.

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